how soon is too soon to leave a panic job?

A reader writes:

I took an “any port in a storm” type job due to the pandemic and am wondering what comes next.

The background: After suddenly losing my job last year, I was thrown into an urgent job hunt. Four months ago, I landed a job with a decent salary, doing much the same work I’d done previously but in a sector that I wouldn’t have chosen if I wasn’t desperate for a job. It was definitely an “I’m taking the job because it’s the first I’ve been offered” situation, but I was grateful to get it.

The people here are nice, and they’ve put a lot of time into training me. They are evidently expecting me to stay in the job for many years, as has been the pattern for most former employees in my role. I would like to work for myself in the future and am even thinking about completely changing fields, but that will take a long time to achieve and I need to stay employed for several years meanwhile. I figured this would be a good set-up for, say, the next five years.

But I’ve realized that I just don’t enjoy the job at all. I’m used to working on projects that don’t set my soul on fire, but this has been the most stressful job I’ve ever had by far. Part of that is due to inefficient working practices, which I should be able to have some influence on over time, but I don’t think they’ll completely go away. My department – and therefore me — also shoulders a huge workload that has nothing to do with my role and should be done by a totally different department. It really interferes with my ability to get my main job done and I’m working very long hours during busy weeks. I’ve been told that won’t change for the foreseeable future because of pressures from the pandemic. I’ve also encountered some ethical concerns with the company’s work that I didn’t expect.

I’d been telling myself that my unhappiness was just part of the adjustment to a new job and I should focus on feeling grateful for the paycheck and it would get better once I’d settled in more. Maybe that will be the case to some degree. But I’m getting that “dreading going to work” feeling on Sunday nights that I haven’t had for years and it really unsettles me. So I’m wondering whether it’s okay to just conclude that although it’s been a lifeline job, it isn’t a job for me in the long-term.

If I decide that, how long do I have to stay? I know I’ve got to do at least a year for my resume’s sake and job hunting could take ages anyway. But I think my employer would be really disappointed if left so quickly, and I don’t want to look flaky to recruiters and harm my ability to get work that I’d enjoy more. However, life feels too short to be unhappy with my working life and I feel sad at the thought of dreading Mondays for the next five years.

You don’t need to stay a year for your résumé’s sake.

Somehow a lot of people have gotten the idea that you’re always supposed to stick it out for a year at a job even if you’re miserable, but it’s not true. There’s nothing magical about the one-year mark!

If your concern is that you don’t want to look like a job hopper, a single short-term stay isn’t going to be a problem. Job hopping is about a pattern where you repeatedly leave jobs after only a short time; it’s not about one short tenure. Also, when it is a concern, staying for a year won’t counteract it anyway! A bunch of one-year stays will raise the same concern as a bunch of eight-month stays. In most fields, you generally need a track record of staying at companies at least two or three years to avoid looking like a job hopper. So staying somewhere that makes you miserable so that you can reach an arbitrary one-year mark will just make you suffer more without getting much benefit out of it.

If your résumé is already full of short-term stays, you do have more reason to stick things out at this job so that you can counteract that flaky impression. But to do that, you’d need to stay for at least two years, and three would be better. That’s a long time to stay when you’re this unhappy, and I’d question whether it’s worth it. Frankly, if you already have a job-hopper-ish résumé, one more short-term job probably isn’t going to be the deciding factor in whether an employer hires you or not. I’d rather you find a job you like and that you can commit to staying at for a while.

Plus, there’s a lot of job-switching happening right now, so leaving quickly isn’t going to stand out as much as it might in more normal times. A lot of people are in situations similar to yours, where they took any job they could get (or could do safely) during the pandemic, but now are starting to look around at what else is available. And a ton of people are switching jobs because it’s finally an employee’s market (in a lot of fields, at least, though not in all), or because they put planned moves on hold last year and hunkered down where they were, but are venturing out now. There’s just a lot of churn going on at this particular moment, and that’s good for you.

Moreover, if an interviewer asks why you’re leaving this job so quickly, you have a perfectly understandable explanation. You took a job outside your sector because you needed a job during the pandemic, but you’ve realized it’s not the right fit. Interviewers will get that. It doesn’t sound flaky.

The other important thing is, none of these are hard-and-fast rules! Yes, it’s true that if you have a résumé full of short-term stays, it will be a concern for some interviewers and could make your job search harder than it would otherwise be. But that’s not a guaranteed outcome (especially if you’re not an extreme case), and it’s very unlikely to prevent you from ever being employed again. It’s useful to be aware of how job hopping can be perceived, but the world won’t end if you do it (and neither will your career). The idea isn’t for you to adhere to rigid rules about how to manage your career, but rather for you to understand the potential trade-offs so you can make good decisions for yourself accordingly.

As for your employer being disappointed if you leave soon, they might be! But people leave jobs, often at not-ideal times, and employers survive. And sure, managers generally hope that when you accept a job you’re planning to stick around for a while — but good managers understand that things don’t always work out, and they won’t want you to feel obligated to stay in a job where you’re dreading coming to work.

So if you’ve realized that this job isn’t one you want to stay in the long term (or even in the medium- or short term), you don’t need to! You can start looking right now if you want to. It’ll be okay.

That said, make sure you really do your due diligence on the next place; don’t leap at the first thing that comes along, or you could find yourself back in this same position six months from now. But if you want to leave … you can leave. Good luck!

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Marillenbaum*

    I think Allison makes a really good point. And after all, since you are hoping to look carefully for your next place of employment and also hiring sometimes takes a while, you might as well start looking now. It may be that you find the right job in a month or two, but it’s just as likely that you’ll be putting in your notice closer to the one year mark, and that’s fine! If the right thing comes along, it’s okay to say “This opportunity was too good to pass up”.

    1. Aunt Vixen*

      Yes. Start looking now, and when the right non-panic, non-stopgap job comes along, take it and tell your present job it was an offer you couldn’t refuse.

      I got out of a miserable lifeboat job after nine months and have never been sorry for a single day since

    2. Smithy*

      In addition to all of this, I think this is a perfect time to remember the pieces about resumes not having to include every job you’ve ever had. If ultimately you’re able to find a new/better fit job quickly and are only at this job for six months – it may be best on your resume to have the period between your layoff and your next job be longer.

      Similar to the concept of “have to stay for a 12/18/24 months” – this idea that having the smallest gaps possible on your resume that are improved by a 6 month job vs a longer period of unemployment due to COVID doesn’t actually make sense.

      1. Junior Dev*

        Yes — and I think now is a great time to get away with having a resume gap since the economy is in such turmoil.

        1. ExplorastoryNZ*

          Agreed. No-one looked twice at the fact I had been out of the workforce for 8+ months when I started job hunting earlier this year. I was even open with the fact I had opted to take an extended break before job hunting to reassess my priorities.

    3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      And by starting now, you won’t be as affected physically, mentally and emotionally as you will be in six more months. This job is making you unhappy. That is not a good place to be (ever) when you are looking for a job, because 1) you can’t make clear headed decisions; 2) you can’t present your best self; 3) it’s hard to act when you are unhappy and tired.
      I think that you should make job hunting a hobby. Enjoy looking. Use it as a break from your job. Reenergize and good luck.

      1. Fran Fine*

        THIS. You don’t ever want to job search from a position of desperation (ask me how I know) because then you’ll just end up in another job you can’t stand, which you’ll then have to leave shortly from anyway, making you have multiple short term gigs on your resume back-to-back.

      2. WandaVision*

        Uh yes, THIS – I just had an interview after a very intense time at my current job from which I am, unfortunately, quite burnt out. Having a virtual interview for a job I truly would have loved, but being on zero energy, was so soul crushing.

  2. FG*

    Taking Alison’s advice … Start looking now, because as you say, it could take a while to find what you want. The difference between this job hunt & the last is that this time you can move *toward* something rather than *away* from something (unemployment). You are unhappy in this job but you have the luxury of a paycheck coming in while you look, and that gives you time and breathing room to find the best thing rather than having to hop to anything. Starting the search may boost your spirits & make the current more tolerable as well, because you have a plan.

  3. EmbracesTrees*

    Plus, the LW is now in a much better position to be more thorough and particular about their next job — being employed helps so much!

  4. Chc34*

    I was in my “I need a job, any job” position for two months before I started looking and left it after six months for a job I stayed in for 5 years. There’s no harm in starting to look now, since you don’t know how long it might take you to find something better!

  5. Bookworm*

    OP: I can relate. I’m in a somewhat similar position. I had to leave my previous job but that didn’t mean this current one was better. And a mix of factors (both me not doing the due diligence that I should have AND the organization not actually being what it said it was) means I’m not thrilled with the job, even if I like my co-workers.

    Thank you for asking this question. I’ll bet there are quite a few of us out there in similar boats.

  6. cmcinnyc*

    So many people’s resumes are going to have weird gaps and patchy jobs and fill-in stuff due to the pandemic. Might as well take advantage of it!

  7. Lacey*

    Definitely start searching now. A short stay isn’t great, but hating Sunday nights because they’re so close to Monday mornings is an awful feeling.

  8. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP — No, don’t spend a year on a job that makes you miserable. As Alison points out, that one-year-minimum-stay requirement was always artificial and besides, nothing about the last 12-18 months is normal. Good employers will understand that.

    Can you reframe your situation a little in your own mind? You have a job that is a lot of work, but it’s work you can do, and it will pay the bills while you figure out what your next move should be. So instead of focusing on how much you don’t like your current job, try to turn your energy towards figuring what you’d really like to be doing, then construct a job search strategy to get that.

    Do some research in the AAM archives — Alison has lots of good advice posted — and please update us when you find something.

  9. SheLooksFamiliar*

    OP, it’s a different job market now and you have more options to consider, but that doesn’t mean all those opportunities will be right for you. Decide on what you need and also want, and conduct your job search with that in mind. It could take a few months for you to sift through all the opportunities that will come your way once you begin your search in earnest.

    Also, I second Alison’s comments about employer views on job-hopping. Leaving this role won’t be a problem unless you have a history of short tenure, and it sounds like you don’t. Good luck, and keep us posted!

  10. Doug Judy*

    I took a “just for now” job knowing 100% I was going to leave as soon as I could. It took me over a year to find something else. However I was very picky about what jobs I was applying to because I wanted to make one change and then stay there. That contributed to the time it took to move on. I’ve been here a few years now and honestly do not plan on leaving any time soon.

    Start looking, but be very picky and do not settle. Be clear on what you want from the role but as importantly what kind of employer you are looking for.

    1. Generic Name*

      I did something similar. The job itself was actually pretty good, but my boss was an asshole/buffoon and made my job miserable. So I started looking after 6 months. I work in a very niche field, and I was VERY picky. I think I applied to 6 jobs during my fairly casual job search. I’ve been at the job I left that job for 10 years.

  11. Jennifer Juniper*

    I wish I had known this back in 2009, Alison.

    I took a panic job in a company known for its abusive treatment of its workers.

    Fast forward to 2015, when I left the job and filed for disability. The judge asked me some questions about the company out of curiosity and told me Ex Job had a horrid reputation!

    I had no idea until then. I thought I was being ungrateful and had to show the company gratitude for giving me a job.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Reading this blog has shown/taught me so many things about the work world.
      We all think we are alone, that our experience is unique to us.
      We think that our only option is to stay or leave.
      We think leaving is failure.
      We think that we must make it work.
      And this is only the most drastic of situations. So many low stakes things have come up as well. I started reading in 2016 and wish I’d known earlier.

  12. nnn*

    I think many employers’ concerns about job-hopping is that if they hire you, you’ll leave after just a short amount of time.

    In LW’s case, this concern could be mitigated with a job hunt in the sectors where you’d prefer to work, which leads to a tidy narrative of “Because I was desperate for a job during the pandemic, I took a job in a sector I wouldn’t normally have chosen. Now I’m looking to get back into [sector you’d prefer to work in].”

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Or even stress the part about “also shoulders a huge workload that has nothing to do with my role and should be done by a totally different department.”
      You don’t have to lie or say it was bait and switch. You can say the company’s needs shifted and that put you in a different position than you were hired for and you want to get back to doing the work you are trained/interested in.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I re-read…I don’t think lie is what I meant to say, I meant you don’t have to exaggerate, or blame the current company.

    2. Aquawoman*

      I think people also need to realize that a single short stint is not the same as job hopping, which is a pattern of short stints. One looks like bad luck, more than one looks like an issue with the job hunter. Having a short stint only requires a decent explanation, which the LW has.

  13. Circe*

    This is so common and I think there are a lot of people who will be in this boat over the next several months. Looking for a job when you have a steady paycheck coming in is a better position to be in than looking while unemployed.

    I only have two things to add to Alison’s excellent advice:

    1. It seems that you aren’t getting a ton of time to do the part of the job you want to do. That, in itself, is a reason to leave. The longer you stay doing something other than what you want to do, the harder it will be to go back to it. Add that to the ethical concerns, and it seems better to bail than stick it out.

    2. Depending on your sector (and the other lengths of stay on your resume) bailing early rather than sticking it out for a year could actually be a GOOD sign. Knowing when a situation isn’t working and taking appropriate action to address that issue is a good quality to have.

  14. Seriously, my name keeps getting deleted*

    This thinking is always funny to me. Let’s say you leave this job after a few months. Well it’s unlikely that your short tenure will be detrimental to your career because, presumably, you left the job because you found …a new job. And if you found a new job a few months into your last job, the new employer clearly didn’t mind and it’s unlikely the next employer will mind either. Go for it and start searching – if you get interviews and offers it’s clearly not a big deal.

    1. Butterfly Counter*

      Also, the fact that the OP has a “good enough” job means that she’s not panicking and willing to take the first thing that comes along. This way, the OP can really investigate that the new job is what she is looking for, doesn’t have the pitfalls she’s experiencing now, and therefore will be much more likely to stay at for a long term, making the current job just a blip on an otherwise excellent resume.

    2. L.H. Puttgrass*

      The weird thing about job hopping hurting a resume is that looking for a job now won’t hurt you now. It won’t have an effect, if it ever does, until you’re looking for your next job.

      If you’re getting offers, your history isn’t hurting you. And unless you’re planning on staying in the new job a short time, changing jobs now won’t hurt down the line, either. Probably the opposite, if the new job turns out to be the one you like well enough to stay in long-term.

    3. Cj*

      “And if you found a new job a few months into your last job, the new employer clearly didn’t mind and it’s unlikely the next employer will mind either.”

      I don’t agree with this. OP *next* job probably won’t mind. But the company/companies after that one will becaue they don’t want to train people that will only be there a short time, and go through the expensive and time consuming process of hiring again.

  15. Nanani*

    Definitely start looking for a job now. Don’t quit your current miserable job without a new one lined up – you don’t want to put yourself back into “any port in a storm” thinking. But as many people have said, one short term stay *because you found another job* in a time period where a lot of people’s employment has been scrambled is not a big deal.

  16. Looking for change*

    Would the advice change if the LW felt exactly the same way but had been in the job for 1.5 years? At that point would it be beneficial for them to tough it out to get to the 2-year mark?

  17. Quickbeam*

    The resume stuff that people fret about often isn’t all that. I once took a nursing job that started 1/2 of the year and ended up having to move 12/15 of the same year. As the newbie I was expected to cover Chrustmas week and I got hate mail and the manager swore I’d never get another nursing job. 35 years later, I’m fine, no one cared in my new state that old state hated me for bailing before Christmas.

  18. ecnaseener*

    I wonder if The Devil Wears Prada is to blame for the one-year myth. Pretty sure she was sticking it out for a year because she’d been told “work there for a year and you can write your ticket anywhere,” not because she didn’t want to look like a job-hopper, but still. I have to imagine the same argument applies: if employers will be impressed by your 1 year of experience with Miranda , then they’re also going to be plenty impressed by 8 months.

    1. Nanani*

      In that particular case, Miranda was such a big name that her positive reference is what creates that golden ticket, and she presumably wouldn’t give one if you quit before the arbitrary mark.
      Most industries don’t have a Miranda.

    2. irene adler*

      Nah. That myth was around in 1988 when I fretted over leaving a job 10 days short of the 1 year mark. Figured that meant I could not put down 1 year on the resume which would result in the end of my professional career.

      Yeah, 1o lousy days!

      My pop pointed out that I’d accrued vacation time – which I did not use. So add that to the 355 days I was employed and – viola! 365 days= 1 year of employment.

      So I put down 1 year for that job.
      Nowadays I wouldn’t give it a second thought.

  19. JJ Bittenbinder*

    I lasted 3 months in my panic job before looking and left at about 5. I was miserable and, because I was working for someone who very much disapproved of working anywhere but the office (despite no need for me to be in the office), I was miserable and micromanaged.

    I’m very glad I left, but I did have to practice speaking about why I was looking so soon until it was smooth to the point of not seeming like I was trying to cover up anything.

  20. redflagday701*

    Your employer probably will be disappointed if you leave, but it’s so reasonable to leave over things like taking on a bunch of extra work and ethical concerns. If you’re being well compensated for the huge workload and long hours — compensated above and beyond what you agreed to when you first took the job — then you might worry more about disappointing them. But I’m willing to bet you’re not, and that’s tough for them, but it’s also a sign that their current way of doing things might not be sustainable. They can reexamine their priorities, just like you have.

  21. voluptuousfire*

    I wish this blog had been around in the early 00’s! If I had found this blog back in 2003 or so, I would have saved myself from a few really bad jobs.

  22. photon*

    The concerns around jobhopping seem kind of overblown. Either you job hunt and find a role, or you job hunt and don’t find a role, or you don’t job hunt. Outcomes #2 and #3 are basically identical. So if you’re unhappy in your current role, what do you have to lose by looking around?

    There’s not a switch that gets flipped where you go from “can find a new job” to “can’t”. Your jobhunt might become harder with each short stint, but you don’t need to preempt that. If you’re miserable, look for something new.

  23. Public Sector Manager*

    I’ve been a supervisor and manager in my state’s civil service for now 11 years. I’ve never not hired someone because of a perceived spotty employment history. What I’ve cared more about is their interview, their backgrounds, and the way their references spoke about their abilities. We have natural turnover at our public agency. My attitude going in is, “assume this person stays only 2-3 years in our office. Are they the best candidate?”

    The former agency head at my state office always felt that new employees needed to show their commitment to stay with our office for their entire civil service career. Which is just a ridiculous premise to begin with! People would stay up nights before giving their notice because it felt like they were betraying the organization. But when we were subjected to furloughs and layoffs, our agency head had zero problem sending out notices to employees losing their full paycheck or their job.

    The best way to think about employment is this great line from the end of the movie L.A. Confidential–“They’re using me, so for a little while, I’m using them.”

    Employers’ pay (cash + benefits) for your time to perform a task. That’s it. Unless you sign a contract, you don’t owe an employer a certain longevity in your job because they will have zero problems laying you off if it suits their needs. You don’t owe your employer your sanity, your happiness, your willingness to do extra work. They pay you to do X. If they ask you to also do Y and Z, that’s a whole new negotiation!

    But other than your time to do a specific task, you don’t owe your employer anything else.

    1. Purple Cat*

      Employers’ pay (cash + benefits) for your time to perform a task. That’s it. Unless you sign a contract, you don’t owe an employer a certain longevity in your job because they will have zero problems laying you off if it suits their needs. You don’t owe your employer your sanity, your happiness, your willingness to do extra work. They pay you to do X. If they ask you to also do Y and Z, that’s a whole new negotiation!


      1. Caroline Bowman*

        Absolutely this. Obviously in reality, one develops good relationships in decent jobs, where some ”extra” and helping out at certain crisis moments is a step to both demonstrating willingness to pitch in and of course to build professional reputation, BUT first and foremost, it’s an exchange of services for money. You have rights, they have rights, you have responsibilities, so do they. It’s meant to be win-win, at least over the longer run.

        It must suit your needs. People forget that. In life, there are compromises to make for sure, and part of being a fair and reasonable person does sometimes involve that, but your needs and requirements are paramount.

  24. Dasein9*

    Maybe taking on the “hobby” of a job search will help with morale in the short term as well. It might make the painful aspects of the current job loom less large, since you’ll have your attention on a different project, one that is for your benefit and is under your control. The project that matters to you is just being funded by current job at the moment.

  25. MissDisplaced*

    There is no set time really. Start looking and take your time to be more choosy next time around.
    I think as long as you don’t do this with every job, having a <1 year stint is fairly easy to explain as not being a good fit and/or wanting a different field or responsibility.

  26. Eleanor Shellstrop*

    Wow, are you me??? I could have written this exact letter. And I’m going to start updating my resume and looking for a job as soon as I get out from under the all-hours-of-the-day workload I’ve currently been saddled with at my “stopgap” job. Thanks Alison!!

  27. Caroline Bowman*

    Just to echo this, start properly searching now. It may well take a while before you get the job you really want (rather than this life-boat one), and since you have a job, you can afford now to be a bit picky, to go for what you really want, to really look into different options before making the decision. Obviously it depends on industry and your skills, but usually this takes at least a few months, if not longer. By the time you get an actual written offer, have accepted it and negotiated start dates, it could easily be six months minimum. Since you’ve been there several months already, by the time you left, you’d likely be at or near the one year mark anyway.

    And if not, well then clearly your skills and experience are in good demand, so that’s nice to know!

  28. MCMonkeyBean*

    It sounds like you have at least 3 very good reasons for leaving this job. 1) It’s not in a field that interests you, 2) Your department is working long hours doing work that belongs to a different department, and 3) You have ethical concerns about the work. Any one of those sounds like a good reason on its own, with all three I think you should definitely be searching now! Best of luck!

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